Halswell Park is Grade I listed country house at the foot of the Quantock Hills in north Somerset which Sir Nikalous Pevsner described as ‘the most important house of its date in the county’.
The manor was first recorded in the Domesday Book in 1086 and has been continuously inhabited since at least that date. The Halswell family may descent from the Saxon ‘Wido’ mentioned in 1086, but the Halswell family was certainly established as the Lords of the Manor by the time of Robert of Halswell who died there in 1242.
Little seems to survive of the manor house from those earliest recorded periods; however intriguing details are always being discovered, such as the recently identified C13th gothic windows included in the Gatehouse building. These windows may be from an Oratory that was licenced at the manor in 1318. With new archaeological Investigations ongoing it is hoped dates of the earliest surviving structures will all be established for the first time.
The old manor house that endures today dates mainly from the Tudor and Elizabethan periods, with additions and changes carried out at regular intervals to suit the changing needs of the Halswell family. The first written record of the manor being re-built dates some of the earliest sections of the building, the great hall block on the east range, to 1536. This was built by the 24 year old lawyer Nicholas Halswell after his marriage to the heiress Jane Tremayle, a marriage which also brought nearby Blackmore Manor into the estate.
Many of the Halswell marriages saw other estates from across Somerset and Wales come into the family: and with each heiress seemed to come a new phase of building improvements at Halswell itself. This pattern continued with their grandson, Sir Nicholas Halswell MP, who greatly expanded the house in 1590 immediately after his marriage to the daughter and coheir of the rich Elizabethan courtier Sir Henry Wallop in 1588. This was an early heyday for the Halswell, the family had never been so rich and well connected before and the house was redesigned to reflect their increasing status. However Sir Nicholas made more than a few unwise investments and despite having built up an estate that included manors all over the country, from Norfolk to Devon, he died a bankrupt, but not before he transferred Halswell and other Somerset manors to his son. This relative impoverishment meant Halswell saw few building improvements for the 100 years after Sir Nicholas’s rebuilding splurge in 1590.
It took the last surviving descendent to turn around the fortunes of the estate. When the last male Halswell, the Revd. Hugh, a proctor of Oxford University, died he left the estate in trust to his infant grandson, the son of his daughter Jane who died soon after childbirth in 1650. Jane had married the Royalist Col. of Horse John Tynte MP whose family connections meant that their son, Halswell Tynte, became related to two of Henry VIII’s Queens: Catherine Howard and Anne Boleyn and subsequently Ann’s daughter Queen Elizabeth I.
On his coming of age Halswell Tynte took over control of his own maternal estate, Halswell, and that of his father, Chevely, in 1670. Within a year he had married into the equally ancient and well-connected Fortescue family of Devon. Three years later he was created a Baronet in recognition of his father’s active loyalty to the Crown throughout the Civil Wars. However within just 5 years this continued loyalty to the Stuarts would begin to unravel Sir Halswell’s own ambitions. When he became an MP in 1679 he voted against the Exclusion of the Catholic-leaning James II from inheriting the throne and two years later the militia he controlled, as well as his lieutenancy of County of Somerset, were taken away from him, along with any future political ascendency he might have hoped for. His loyalty to the Stuarts appears to have continued through to the Glorious Revolution in 1688 as the Dutch are recorded having seized 7 of his horses. By the early 1690’s he had lost all official positions as well as his parliamentary seat. However what he didn’t favour in political revolution he spearheaded in architectural revolution. The wing he added to the north of Halswell eclipsed the old manor of his ancestors both physically and architecturally.
This important English Baroque house was conceived in 1683 during the reign of Charles II, built during the reign of James II and completed on the ascension of William & Mary in 1689. Surrounding the main door of this new house are carvings of his military and knightly attainments and above it sits the complex quartering of arms reflecting the Halswell Tynte ancestry to the left and his wife’s Fortescue ancestry to the right. It is a triumphant expression of family power and military credentials. However the political isolation Sir Halswell seems to have suffered because of his loyalty to the Stuarts meant his strikingly forceful new house was underused as a seat of power in his lifetime.
This imposing and much more formal cut-stone building was designed by the Stuart architect William Taylor and has the muscular hallmarks of the home-grown English Baroque movement. Halswell is the only known house by William Taylor to have survived and is one of the very earliest surviving Baroque houses in the country, pre-dating its much larger stylistic cousins such as Castle Howard and Blenheim Palace. Its conception date of 1683 predates even Chatsworth House in Derbyshire which is commonly regarded as the first Baroque house in the country.
After Sir Halswell’s death in 1702 his son Sir John married the Welsh heiress to the estate of Sir Charles Kemeys. When she died in 1747 both estates were combined under the sole ownership of the 5th Baronet, Sir Charles Kemeys Tynte and a great new period of building commenced once again.
By now the ancient manor house had been mostly transformed into service rooms at the rear to support the grand baroque house which dominated the landscape. This severe C17th Baroque house, though now old-fashioned in the age of Palladianism appeared to suffice in size and only had a few Palladian modifications, such as the rococo dining room and a facelift to the east and west elevations.
Sir Charles love was the outdoors and he created a vast naturalistic landscape from the regimented Restoration-period gardens he grew up with. Sweeping away the straight avenues of trees and high redbrick walls that enclosed the estate and the gardens within it. Sir Charles appears to have employed the famous Thomas Wright of Durham to design pleasure gardens with waterfalls and follies, walks and rides encompassing a 450 acre parkland. Though some of these buildings were very visible in the larger landscape, such as the classical Rotunda and Rockwork Screen at front of the house, or the gothick with a ‘K’ Robin Hood’s Hut set high above the house on Rooks Castle Hill, much of his attention and resources were focussed within the ancient wooded stream landscape called Mill Wood.
The Kemeys-Tynte’s, as the family name became upon Sir Charles’s death in 1785, continued in the military and in parliament right up to the twentieth century but the phases of building that told of so many architectural patrons over the centuries had stopped by 1785. When an old family title from a maternal line was revived by the House of Lords in 1916 they became the Barons Wharton. The house suffered a fire soon after in the 1920’s but was comprehensively restored and updated by the 8th Baron, who left a house in excellent physical condition. It was the 9th Baron, Charles John Halswell Kemeys-Tynte, who, without the likelihood of children himself, sold the estate off in lots at auction between 1948 and 1950.
The story of the destruction of Halswell is typical of so many great houses during the C20th. The woods were cut down, the deer park was put to the plough, follies collapsed or were destroyed, being so isolated in farmers’ fields from their original purposes. What saved the house itself was its size, strength and excellent condition. It was partly converted into flats which saved it from the wrecking ball until it could be put back together as one house again in the C21st. The C18th pleasure garden, Mill Wood, has recently come back into estate ownership and the long path to full restoration of all the buildings and their history is now well under way.